Edinburgh's festivals pledge they do not need to come back bigger than ever

Leaders of Edinburgh festivals have pledged that the world-famous cultural celebration does not have to return to its previous scale to make a recovery from the pandemic.

By Brian Ferguson
Thursday, 5th August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 7:04 am
Crowds are expected to return to the Royal Mile to watch street performers over the next few weeks.
Crowds are expected to return to the Royal Mile to watch street performers over the next few weeks.

Senior figures insist there is no need for the city’s annual festivities to attract the same audience numbers again – two years after a record 4.4 million flocked to events and shows across the main summer events.

They insist the focus for future years will be on the quality of experience and supporting the supply chains of the festivals, including companies and freelances, rather than the quantity of tickets sold.

A key priority will be ensuring that the festivals are more sustainable than they were in 2019, when they faced criticism over the impact of crowds and events in the city centre.

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Festival crowds outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Picture: Scott Louden

Edinburgh’s summer festivals, which have been widely regarded as the world’s biggest cultural event for decades, are said to be second in scale only to the Olympics.

Some experts have valued Edinburgh’s summer festivals – which featured more than 25,000 artists, writers and performers from 70 countries two years ago – at worth more than £1 billion for the city’s economy. They are believed to have been supporting more than 6000 jobs every year in the run-up to 2019.

A full recovery for the city’s cultural celebration is not anticipated until 2022 – the 75th anniversary of the launch of the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the film festival – after organisers faced huge difficulties making plans this year due to uncertainty over when Covid restrictions would be eased.

Just 1100 events across 150 venues have been confirmed across the major festivals over the next three and a half weeks – compared to more than 5000 staged in 2019.

The Edinburgh International Festival is based at The Hub on the Royal Mile. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Audience numbers are also expected to be affected by social distancing policies enforced by events and venues, even though restrictions are due to be lifted in Scotland on Monday.

Most events are expected to go ahead with at least one metre distancing in place.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “I’m absolutely not interested in the size and scale of the event whatsoever. Anybody who knows the Fringe Society will know that our mantra has been ‘one more show, not two more feet.’

"In terms of future years, I’d definitely like to see us actually reset things and come right back to the core of what the Fringe is all about, which is about access to the performing arts for everyone.

"The criticism that I would take is that maybe we had lost some sense of that and the Fringe had become a bit of a free for all. The Fringe has become a bit of a catch-all for everything that happens in the city. It’s something we need to take a look at to try to get back to our core purpose.

“Coming into our 75th anniversary year, we want to be part of a whole series of conversations so we can set out out a sort of manifesto for what the Fringe is going to look like for the next 25 years and give everybody an opportunity to contribute to that.”

Francesca Hegyi, executive director of the Edinburgh International Festival, said: “We’ve been talking us a group of festivals about how we come back back, and that’s not necessarily bigger.

"It’s definitely not about size and scale, it’s about how we come back in a more sustainable way.

“The last 16 months has made everybody really think and consider the role we play in the city and what’s really important.

"It’s about the sustainability of not just the festivals, but about all of our supply chains and all the local businesses that depend on the festivals.

“We’re thinking very carefully about how we come back stronger as well as a real asset to the city. It’s not about size and scale, it’s about sustainability.

“We look at success in a holistic way. It’s about quality and whether something is artistically good, the response of people and whether they are having a good time, whether it is generally welcomed by the city and Edinburgh’s residents.

"The number of visitors or tickets sold is a very narrow way of looking at. It’s not the driver for the International Festival and I don’t think it’s the driver for the other festivals either.”

Julia Amour, director of Festivals Edinburgh, which oversees the city’s major cultural events, said: "Before Covid hit, we wanted to make it clear that we valued the quality of experience over the volume of experience.

"That message is being reinforced as we come back. It's the quality of experience that we want to prioritise in future.

“Where footfall in the city had got to in 2019 was a product of a whole set of wide global forces, such as the growth of air routes and short breaks, and social media driving traffic to honeypots. We've all had a hiatus from that now.

"We have all been looking - in our personal lives as well as our professional lives - at what a sustainable future means.

"There is a real desire from the festivals, our partners in the city and policymakers to make sustainable tourism a reality for Edinburgh.

"Cultural visitors are quite curious visitors. Festivals are able to take them to places they might not otherwise visit and they stay for a good length of time.”

Ms McCarthy added: “We know who comes to the Fringe and where they come from. We know that 35 per cent of them are from Edinburgh and 57 per cent of them in total are from Scotland, with 36 per cent from the rest of the UK and just seven per cent international.

"The idea that the Fringe is responsible for overtourism in Edinburgh is just crazy.”